After spending a year at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites head back into the desert in Numbers 11.
In the first ten chapters of the Book of Numbers, things are going pretty smoothly for the Israelites.
They celebrate the Passover, they dedicate the Tabernacle. We don’t really see any major sin issues. But nearly as soon as the Israelites hit the road, they’ll start complaining, a common theme during the Israelite wanderings.
God had saved, redeemed, and sustained the Israelites.
But the Israelites struggled with gratitude to God for all that he had done for them.
We don’t have control over the circumstances that we face in life. But we do always have control over how we respond.
We can respond by complaining and grumbling or we can respond in faith and confidence in God.
Viktor Frankel was a psychiatrist who endured the horrors of the Holocaust at Auschwitz.
After surviving the Holocaust, he wrote a very influential book called “Man’s Search for Meaning.” And part of the thesis of that book is that the most fundamental of human freedoms is the freedom to control how one responds.
Even in difficult situations, even in broken relationships, even in financial hardships, even in the face of sickness, you still have a choice in how you respond.
You can despair, you can feel like it’s all pointless and futile. You can get mad at God, question his goodness and love. You can get bitter.
You can be cynical, you can become self-centered.
Or you can continue to grow. You can be selfless. You can take the focus solely off of yourself.
You can still walk with God in the struggle. In the desert.
You can still trust in God when you’re tired and warn down.
Our contentment and joy must be found in God.
God is leading all of his people to greater places. And if we lose sight of that on the journey, we can make the mistakes that the Israelites made of losing sight of the goodness of God.
Numbers 11:4-6 features the Israelites continuing to complain, while they look back at their time in Egypt (in slavery) longingly.
Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.6 But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”
They might be complaining about food. But the underlying issues are so much bigger than the divine meal plan.
“Oh when we were in Egypt, the food was so much better!”
Verse 20 summarizes the scene well: you have rejected the Lord who is among you and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come out of Egypt?” ’
It was wicked and sinful after all that God had done for the people: freeing them, sustaining them, forgiving them when they had fallen into idolatry and sin.
And yet they have the audacity to say “Oh Egypt. Those were the good old days.”
Sometimes in life, it can be easy when we’re in a season when things are generally good to go to church, maybe read your Bible sometimes.
But the moment there’s some adversity and challenge, there’s this temptation to want to complain against God.
Just like the Israelites, we have many great blessings from the Lord.
Most importantly, the gift of eternal life that God has promised through Jesus Christ.
We were slaves to sin. And God redeemed us. God gives his Spirit. God invites us into a relationship to know him. And God is bringing us to a new land too. To a New Heaven, and a New Earth, and a New Jerusalem.
But sometimes we have to spend some time in the desert to get to the promised land.
How will we respond when we’re there though?
Will we criticize God and forget his goodness? Or will we trust him?
Originally published June 14, 2018
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Josh Benner has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has served churches in Minnesota and Illinois. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in St. Louis.